TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The confidence and bravado of many Taiwanese began to vanish yesterday in the face of an intensifying crisis over their future.
With massive Chinese naval and air forces exercises due to start today, Chinese missiles still threatening to fall outside two main harbors and yet another powerful U.S. Navy group steaming toward the region, Taiwanese were hesitantly coming to the conclusion that an armed clash with China might be in the making.
Many people still believe that war will be avoided, but the jitters started to spread yesterday beyond the chronically nervous upper class. The stock market plunged again and those with cash to spare bought dollars, but even sober Taiwanese started to consider increasingly pessimistic scenarios.
"It's very hard for China to give way on this now and it's also very hard for Taiwan. In the coming weeks, we'll see more exercises and very possibly they'll take an island or islet of ours," said Andrew Yang, head of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "And that will lead to retaliation."
Others were more sanguine.
"We're all Chinese," said betel-nut vendor Hui Hsie-ting. "They're clever strategists, those mainlanders are, but they're not going to launch an invasion."
Perhaps not, but the exercises scheduled to start today are blocking off a huge section of the Taiwan Strait and taking place just 50 miles from the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Quemoy and the Pescadores.
International concern was reflected in a fresh round of criticism; Japan's Foreign Ministry summoned China's envoy in Tokyo yesterday for the second time in a week to urge Beijing to urge restraint toward Taiwan, while warnings also came from Vietnam, Australia and Canada.
The hope universally expressed was that the confrontation would deflate. As State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns put it yesterday: "We want our actions to help calm the situation."
But a worrying escalation is under way.
China is expected to deploy its most modern submarines, ships and airplanes in an effort to demonstrate to Taiwan that it has the wherewithal to capture the island, which it considers to be a breakaway province that must be brought to heel before it formally declares independence.
"The exercises are aimed at demonstrating China's determination and capability to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity," Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said at a news conference in Beijing yesterday.
China is also in the midst of missile tests that are disrupting sea traffic and fishing out of Taiwan's two largest harbors. Three unarmed missiles have landed in the sea so far, although none in the past four days.
Mr. Qian took exception to Washington's decision to send warships to the Taiwan Strait to monitor the tests, including the ordering of another carrier-led battle group to the area yesterday. The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz will join the carrier USS Independence by next week.
"Taiwan is not a protectorate of the United States," Mr. Qian warned, adding that if Taiwan were "invaded" by a foreign power, China would use force.
The sudden U.S. decision to deploy forces caught Taiwanese off guard, leading to mixed feelings.
"This is exactly what we want," said Yao Chia-wen, a top leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. "We want the international community involved in the Taiwan question. It's a question of a people's self-determination; it's not an internal Chinese issue."
Others, however, saw a danger that U.S. and Chinese forces could accidentally become entangled and hurt Taiwan.
"It's the old saying that when two giants tangle, the dwarf gets hurt," said taxi driver Chen Yih-wen.
More probable than immediate confrontation between China and the United States would be a tussle between China and Taiwan, said Mr. Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.
When the exercises were first announced, analysts generally believed that they were designed to intimidate Taiwan's voters before the March 23 presidential election. Incumbent Lee Teng-hui, who China dislikes for allegedly trying to formalize Taiwan's split from China, is expected to win, but China was hoping the pressure would keep Mr. Lee's support to under 50 percent.
While that analysis is probably still valid, Mr. Yang and others now believe that China will not simply relax the tensions after the vote. With China's propaganda apparatus busily turning Mr. Lee into China's public enemy No. 1, Beijing can hardly turn around after the election and offer talks.
China will probably continue to demand at least that Mr. Lee commit himself to a timetable to reunification as the precondition to talks, Mr. Yang said.
"But he can't do that because President Lee will have to work with other parties in Taiwan and other parties won't go for a timetable," Mr. Yang said. The consensus among analysts now is that China will hold a third round of exercises, possibly as early as next week, to make Mr. Lee look even less like the capable statesman he is trying to project himself to be.
Grabbing an islet would be the next step, said Tim Ding, a sociologist and opinion poll researcher for Gallup. Still not in possession of the modern F-16 fighters it bought from the United States or the Mirage 2000s it bought from France, Taiwan has few weapons capable of retaliating, he said.
As though in preparation for such an attack, the dozen or so outlying islands that Taiwan possesses were put on heightened security alert yesterday. Troops on Quemoy began digging nTC trenches and hacking down trees to give a better field of fire. While the actions were partly for show, they reflected anxiety that Taiwan could easily face the humiliating loss of an island or two.
"I served as a soldier in the 1970s on Quemoy and even though we were bombarded every day I don't think we ever seriously thought the Communists would attack," said Lin Yu-fang, a lecturer at Taiwan's Armed Forces University. "But I now feel the atmosphere there is much bleaker."
The basic question is how much credit one gives to the premise that China is run by pragmatists who don't want to go to war with the most democratic and prosperous region of China in Chinese history, said C. J. Lee, of the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research.
"Everything now is focused on political ends," Mr. Lee said. "You can ask if it's economically reasonable or not but what's reasonable when hard-liners are in control in Beijing? For them the only thing that matters is reunification -- whatever the cost."
Pub Date: 3/12/96